Sakhu sits in a corner of my kitchen, ignoring the cup of tea before her, wiping away her tears. She senses my scrutiny. Gathering her sari around her bruised lip, she is shrinking further into herself, trying to make herself inconspicuous.
Self-blame. Shame. Dejection. Her posture says it all.
Her clothes are crumpled, her hair unkempt; far from her usual neat appearance. I wonder whether she has been wandering outside all night.
I am relieved that she arrived after my husband has left for work. Perhaps she had been lurking outside the gate, waiting for him to leave. Still in my nightgown, I had to hastily duck into the bedroom to pull on my long sleeved wrapper, before I opened the door to let her in.
Sakhu has been my maidservant for the past three months. Diligent, punctual, cheerful, hardworking, a battered wife.
Women in my neighbourhood have tried to dissuade me from employing her. Too many mornings when she does not turn up for work, they say. But I have ignored them.
I tactfully leave her to finish her tea.
The strip of painkillers is on the end table on my side of the bed. She needs one; I have never seen her in so much pain. As I take out one to give her, I notice that I have already run through half. I gaze at it for full minute. I can’t remember when I had bought it. A week ago? A fortnight? I feel a searing pain within me that is not at all physical. Tears trickle down my cheeks.
Silent tears; I am good at crying silently.
I return to the kitchen ten minutes later, make-up hiding the ravages on my face. She has finished the tea. Broom in hand, she has begun to sweep the kitchen. I stop her.
“Take this.” I say, giving her the painkiller.
A questioning look from Sakhu.
“It takes away the pain.” I explain, knowing how untrue this really is. “Go home now. Come when you feel better.”
“Not all my memsahibs are as understanding….Anyway, I don’t want to go home.”Her eyes well up once more.
She makes eye-contact with me for the first time. What I see shakes me up. There is something there that I have not seen before. God knows, I need to help Sakhu.
I admire her. Her courage, her perseverance, and the fact that she walks out every morning to make ends meet. Unless she is in very severe pain, she comes to my home like clockwork. She refuses to leave her man. Her son needs a father and she needs a home. Twenty years of this….The dignity with which she endures moves me.
But today, something is different. In spite of everything, she has always emanated a quiet hope. Flashes of smiles and the rare laugh amidst the quietude that cloaks her. But today, she is mourning the loss of something.
I am concerned.
I ask her to sit. She obeys. I sit down next to her.
“Kaay jhale? (what has happened)” I ask gently, dreading the answer.
It takes her a moment to find her voice.
A whisper filled with shame and sadness. “Last night….my son..he…. he…. hit me. He has his exams …I turned off the television.”
We are both quiet for a few moments. I feel cold inside. I know what has broken within her. Hope. Dreams. Her reason for enduring. How many times had she stayed with him, saying to herself……this is for my family? Countless times…. I know.
She continues. “With a father like that, what can I hope for from my son?”
My sudden stillness alerts her. She looks sharply at me with sad eyes, and I know that she has guessed my horrific secret. It is my turn to avoid her gaze.
She gently places her hand on mine. “ May-dum.(madam)” She says. “Don’t worry. You people are educated …. ‘high-society’. Your child will be different.”
One battered wife to another, she knows. My long sleeved clothes, heavy make-up, smiling face not withstanding, she knows the truth amid my lies. Perhaps has known for a while. Our lives and lies, hopes and fears, terror and pain are too similar for her not to have known.
The world may not know it, but we are sisters under the skin. I burst into tears, relieved to have a shoulder to cry on.